Moondog’s “Elpmas” a Neglected Gem

Elpmas 3

ELPMAS / MOONDOG: Wind River Powwow. Westward Ho! Suite Equestria (Trail Versus Road And Trail). Marimba Mondo 1: The Rain Forest. Fujiyama 1 (instrumental). Marimba Mondo 2: Seascape Of The Whales. Fujiyama 2 (Lovesong). Bird Of Paradise. The Message (A Cappella Male Chorus). Introduction and Overtone Continuum. Cosmic Meditation / Moondog (Louis Hardin), kbd/marimba/perc/voc; Henry Schuman, ob; Johannes Leis, pic fl/a-sax/t-sax/bs-sax; Peter Wendland, vln/viol da gamba (Diskant, ten, bs); Götz Alsmann, bjo; Andi Toma, gtr/voc/whistling; Akbar Huck, Max Alsmann, voice; Nobuko Sugai, recit / Kopf KD 123314, available for free streaming on YouTube

The late Moondog, born as Louis Hardin, was unquestionably one of the most individual and eclectic of American composers. As he himself put it, his music was “rhythmically avant-garde but harmonically traditional.” He was particularly fascinated by canons, and often bragged that his canons were “purer than Bach’s.” After living in New York for nearly 30 years (1943-1972), he migrated with his daughter to Germany, which he admired above all other countries for their musical art, and stayed there until his death in Münster in 1999 at the age of 83.

This 1991 recording, which came out on the small Kopf label, is not as well known as his later Sax Pax for a Sax but is clearly among his better later recordings. Although he continually denied it, his music, with its repeated motifs in the same key, was a strong influence on the emerging minimalist scene. Both Terry Riley and Philip Glass were drawn to his music and admit to using it as a model for their own, but there’s always something about Moondog’s music that branded it as unique. Neither Riley nor Glass really sound like Moondog, and he in turn doesn’t really sound like them.

The opening four tracks all feature Moondog himself on the marimba as well as other percussion instruments. Although only three male performers are credited as vocalists, there is clearly a chorus of at least 10 male singers on Westward Ho!, Suite Equestria and The Message, so there had to be some ringers in there. In Fujiyama 1, we reach an oboe and flute duet, played with consummate artistry by Henry Schuman and Johannes Leis. Unlike the pieces on his two American Columbia albums, many of these tracks are quite extended in length. Excepting the very short piece The Message, which is just a minute long, most of the works here average around five minutes each—not counting the last track, a hypnotic meditation piece that runs 24 minutes. As the liner notes proclaim:

Produced by Andi Toma (Mouse on Mars) and released at the beginning of the 90’s, elpmas is a genuine concept-album which uses the woody tones of the marimbas, numerous field-recordings and borrowings from Japanese musical forms to sketch an ode to nature and a manifesto against the ill-treatment of the aboriginal peoples. Twenty-five years later, this message is still awfully relevant. Read backwards, the title of the album is ‘’sample’’, evoking the sound material commonly used in electronic music. To shape the album, Moondog sampled the entire range of a marimba, note after note, used sound recordings of natural environments and different sound treatments and loops, all with the help of a ‘’computer’’. Moondog was indeed convinced that this tool only could help him reproduce the complex and tangled latticework he had in mind. Thus, elpmas has only existed within the studio. The (re)interpretation proposed by ensemble 0 convenes on stage the organic warmth of real marimba bars, the analog tape of a Revox to play the field-recordings, the voices of today intertwined with the ghosts of the past through the use of certain original sound materials (such as the viola) recorded in 1991 to revive a music that borrows widely from the Native American pow wows.

As in the case of most of Moondog’s music, the repeated patterns somehow do not annoy as much as in the music of Glass or Riley because Moondog’s sense of rhythm was much stronger than theirs. This came from his fascination with modern jazz as it was developing in New York in the 1940s and early ‘50s; among Moondog’s admirers and musical friends was legendary alto saxist Charlie Parker, for whom he wrote Bird’s Lament (recorded for Columbia).

What marks this collection as unusual in Moondog’s output is the use of pre-recorded nature sounds, including birds and animals, as a background. At the end of one track, probably as an inside joke, he also includes the pops, hisses and crackles of old 78 rpm or LP records. Moondog clearly existed in his own universe, yet some very serious musicians—among them Benny Goodman, Artur Rodziński, Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini—took what he did very seriously, though of course the music, with its lack of traditional bodies of strings and winds and heavy focus on a large body of percussion (some of which Moondog invented himself), was not the kind that Rodziński or Toscanini would perform with their orchestras.

Interestingly, for those of us who remember Moondog during his New York years, it was just this side of him that was least well known. True, he sometimes performed his most percussive and least lyrical pieces himself on street corners, but he didn’t really emphasize this aspect of his personality. Most passersby knew him as a poet who sold Xerox copies of his poems and occasionally recited them, a street-corner philosopher who was not shy about giving his opinions of New York City and what was going on in it, or just a strange, solitary figure dressed in a cape, Viking helmet and spear who stood motionless and said nothing. He was a genuine “character” who only received his just due as a composer when he recorded his Columbia Masterworks LPs in 1969 and 1971.

The varied content of these pieces becomes more apparent the further one goes into the album. Although very short, The Message is fascinating in his use of contrapuntal choirs singing against one another (possibly double-tracked) with no instrumental accompaniment, while Introduction and Overtone Continuum is actually a prelude to the extraordinarily long Cosmic Meditation. This latter piece is great music for your satori if you choose to use music to help zone you out.

All in all, a remarkable album of extraordinary music, not the sort of Moondog pieces that others will be playing or singing but an indispensable piece of his own musical makeup.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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One thought on “Moondog’s “Elpmas” a Neglected Gem

  1. Rasmus Steen says:

    “What marks this collection as unusual in Moondog’s output is the use of pre-recorded nature sounds, including birds and animals”, Moondog was actually an early pioneer of sampling. Already on his selftitled record from 1956 he used recordings of nature (Tree Tail) or frogs (Frog Bog).

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